Culler, Chomsky, competence

… he [Jonathan Culler] prefers Noam Chomsky’s distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ to Saussure’s between ‘langue‘ and ‘parole‘. The notion of ‘competence’ has the advantage of being closely associated with the speaker of a language; Chomsky showed that the starting point for an understanding of language was the native speaker’s ability to produce and comprehend well-formed sentences on the basis of an unconsciouslyassimilated knowledge of the language system.

Raman Selden (1997), A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf; p. 118.


I have to acknowledge that I haven’t read any Chomsky, but this section from Selden makes me wonder about the ways that literary theory has focused on either the reader or the writer or the text. Selden actually makes that distinction in his introduction. However, what I think is missing from both intentional (author-based) and affective (reader-based) analyses is the idea that reading and writing, or consuming and producing more broadly, often occur in tandem. So is it possible to develop a mode of analysis that can account for both moves–that deals with the ‘ability to produce and comprehend’ at the same time? This idea of ‘competence’ would seem to suggest that production and comprehension rely on the same knowledge, the same ability, have the same root. It’s quite a humanist point of view, which probably explains why, as a dedicated formalist, I’m so uncomfortable about it. But it’s always seemed a little fallacious to separate the writer and the reader when the writer spends so much time consuming either his own work or others’, and the reader spends so much time producing either new communications or interpretations of previously given texts.


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